With the reign of Pope Benedict XVI having ended Thursday, Catholicism is at a crossroads.
It is a deeply polarized religion. Its values and culture predate capitalism. Today, many Catholic Americans are globalized and often torn between a spiritual vision of the world and their acceptance of secularized society.
Nevertheless, in both First and Third World countries, there remains substantial interest in the progress of the Catholic Church and its leaders.
The excitement surrounding the announcement of a conclave following Pope Benedict XVI’s retirement suggests it is the distance between modern American life and Catholic religious culture and leadership that continues to both fascinate and frustrate many Catholic and non-Catholic Americans.
The roots of Christianity lie in cultures that depended on local networks and personal charity rather than communities supported by centralized government-funded assistance programs. Through the first 1,900 years of Catholic history, infant mortality rates were high, making unreliable contraception methods less problematic. Public homosexuality was extremely rare and widely demonized. War, famine and disease epidemics were realistic concerns to people who had little education or role in government and sought front-line protection through prayer.
This type of society still exists in many parts of the world, notably South America and Africa, which are home to 27.87 percent and 12.57 percent of the world’s Catholics, respectively. In South America, large populations live amid desperate poverty and continued violence, but they remain overwhelmingly active Catholics. Catholics are a small minority (15 percent in 2010) in Africa, a continent plagued by famine and HIV/AIDS, but the church has seen steady growth in both converts and the priesthood.
While Catholic theology reflects thousand-year-old teachings that many Americans find outmoded, our fascination with the traditions of Catholicism grows out of our distance from its point of origin and trajectory of development – first Roman Judea and then medieval Europe. This American fascination is fed by the popularity of neo-Gothic church architecture and Renaissance art (Michelangelo in particular) that reminds us of Christians’ shared European past.
The preservation of centuries-old liturgies and rituals and the periodic use of Latin allow Catholics to connect with their spiritual and cultural roots. Yet this desire for cultural preservation often sits in opposition to the modernization of Catholic theology and frustrates people seeking a compromise between traditional doctrine and a modern lifestyle.
The current discussion among the 74 million American Catholics about the next pope’s identity reflects a tension between our current lives and our collective past as well as a tension between Catholic needs in First and Third World countries. Not surprisingly, Americans want different things from the next pope than do Catholics living in a Brazilian slum or dying of AIDS in Africa.
If the next pope wants to bridge the disconnect between these dramatically different lifestyles, he will have to find a way to deliver traditional Catholic succor while easing frustration over doctrine and maintaining the trappings of Catholic culture. Surely this is a divine challenge if ever there was one.